How Milton Works 
by Stanley Fish.
Harvard, 616 pp., £23.95, June 2001, 0 674 00465 5
Show More
Show More

‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ William Blake wrote these words near the end of the 18th century and set going the idea that Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic justifying the ways of God to men, had a twofold force: an orthodox ostensible meaning and a profoundly unorthodox unconscious meaning, the latter being far stronger than the former. After Blake Milton criticism could be roughly divided into two camps: those who argued that Christian orthodoxy was central to the poem and those who detected unorthodox energies everywhere. C.S. Lewis admired the poem for its ‘mere Christianity’ and William Empson thought Milton should be honoured for the unsparing philosophical honesty of his exploration, an honesty which necessarily ended by exposing the weakness of the case for God. In 1967 Stanley Fish published Surprised by Sin, in which he allowed that Milton gives frequent expression to anti-Christian views and feelings but insisted that these passages always describe a temporary temptation. The great similes, drawn from pagan mythology, are allowed briefly to engross the imagination but are at last withdrawn, corrected, crushed. It is not just that people within the poem are tempted. The reader, too, is made to experience real temptation before he or she is brought back to truth. Heterodox critics are in this analysis readers who have no adequate prior conception of God and so are poorly defended against the allurements of sense and merely human emotions; they succumb to the temptation and fail to grasp the proffered correction. The goodness of God, meanwhile, is simply given, before the story begins, and is not open to question.

Now Stanley Fish has written another large book on Milton. Have his views changed? Certainly he has not liberalised his picture of the poet. Rather, he intensifies the account. Fish’s Milton is monist, authoritarian, obscurantist, a completely closed mind. This picture is, of course, absurd.

According to Fish, Milton consistently values the static above the dynamic. That is why ‘centrifugal’ movements of rebellion are always contained by his circumscribing art. There is no tension in him between the demands of God and the demands of a variegated nature: there cannot be, because there is no doubt about the priority of God. The world is nothing, God is all. Thus, for Fish, the moment when Adam resolves that he will eat the apple and go with his beloved Eve into darkness (‘one flesh, to lose thee were to lose myself’) is unproblematic. Generations of readers have felt that the passage is tragic; that here Adam is not just a nasty piece of work who will get what he deserves but a pitiable figure (as Hegel said, we have tragedy not when right conflicts with wrong but when right conflicts with right). But for Fish Adam is merely idolatrous. He wickedly places a human being before God – and there’s an end on it. That Milton should have given Adam at this point not the language of concupiscence but that of love, actually echoing the marriage service, does not cause Fish to hesitate. It is part of his point that even those things which seem best to us in our benighted world are as nothing when set against God. In any case, he explains, an Eve who invites Adam to sin can no longer be the Eve God made, so Adam no longer has any obligation to her. God, it seems, married them for better but not for worse.

To be sure, 17th-century Protestants would immediately agree that our obligation to God is paramount. But they lived in the world and undoubtedly approved, loved and laboured for things within that world which they conceived to be valuable. The weirdly insulated theological monism described by Fish is a caricature of Protestantism.

It has long been a commonplace that in Milton the Devil gets the best tunes – the best poetry – while the argument works (or doesn’t work?) for God. This is not Fish’s position. Reason, logic, argument: all these, for Fish, fall on the dark side of the equation; they are, together with sensuous poetry and human love, implicitly antagonistic to real devotion. His Milton, therefore, is not just closed-minded; he is (as regards human reason – and no other is available) an irrationalist. Indeed, anything utterable in human terms will take us away from rather than towards God. Fish concedes that this means that almost everything Milton actually says (why not simply everything?) points away from the truth. If the reader grows fretful at the thought that a great weight of evidence is being wantonly ignored, Fish has his answer ready: evidence itself is condemned before it is adduced, because of its sublunary, merely human character; affirming God is not something you do on the basis of the evidence, it is something you do in the teeth of evidence provided by forms of life. ‘Forms of life,’ he adds, ‘are always finally unreal and therefore without any claims on us at all.’ The wicked should not be reasoned with but just told that they are blind, deaf etc. Fish rejoices at the point in Comus (actually a later textual addition) where the Lady, after a long passage of robust reasoning on behalf of virtue, tells the threatening wood-demon that she will argue with him no longer.

For Fish’s Milton the important thing is never to assess the argument proffered but always to identify the party to which the proponent belongs: not to ask, ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it on the right side?’ In similar vein he writes: ‘Meanings cannot be read off surfaces but must be read into surfaces by an interpretive act of the will.’ This has a certain affinity with recent doctrines in literary theory. Milton as described by Fish resembles the hapless Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited. Rex induces near despair in the experienced priest who instructs him in the Catholic faith, not because of his intransigence but because of his witless compliance, his willingness to ignore evidence to the point where the distinction between truth and falsehood is itself imperilled:

I ask him: ‘supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said, “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought for a moment and said: “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’

Or, in the words of Ronald Knox’s Bishop of Much Wenlock: ‘Facts are only the steam which obscures the Mirror of Truth.’

Such is Fish’s description of John Milton, the most obstinately argumentative of all English poets, the most heroically strenuous in matters of the mind, the indefatigable compiler of arguments and corroborative materials, whose watchword, all his life, was ‘freedom’. In an age when the word ‘justify’ was normally used of God’s agency on refractory humankind, it was Milton who crucially turned the word round and asked for divine help in his own programme of justifying the ways of God to men. With this one word Fish’s poet of closure opened all the doors. He is of course offering himself as God’s advocate, not the Devil’s, but to advocate a God is to place that God within the arena of rational debate. This is inescapable.

In Areopagitica Milton wrote, ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’; he also wrote that ‘truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolised.’ In Of Civil Power he affirmed the value of ‘reason’ (not inspiration, not inward illumination) against traditional authority. If it is objected that these are early texts, we find the same note struck in the later treatise, Christian Doctrine (which, Fish and I agree, is Milton’s work). Curiously, if one looks up ‘reason’ (ratio) in the index to C.R. Sumner’s edition of the work in Milton’s original Latin, one is directed to the bare phrase, ‘Reason is not to be followed in sacred matters’ – exactly Fish’s thesis! But the proto-Fishian Sumner is no more correct than Fish himself. Milton opens his treatise by affirming the need for each individual to ‘work out’ his creed for himself and resolves to puzzle out the matter ‘by my own exertions’. He urges his reader to withhold consent until Biblical ‘evidence … induces his reason to assent’. (The passage referred to in Sumner’s index is ironical.)

It might be thought that no informed Miltonist could doubt the poet’s respect for scriptural evidence, but Fish does just that. He affirms that Milton, not content with excluding all empirical data, claims that scripture of itself has no significance. Few know, Fish says, with the air of one in possession of a knock-down argument, that Milton rejected the Ten Commandments. The reasoning is: the Ten Commandments are in scripture; Milton rejects the Ten Commandments; therefore Milton rejects scripture. Fish suggests that Milton performed this act of exclusion effortlessly: when the Bible failed to match his internal conviction the Bible was set aside. Milton may indeed have privately disliked the Decalogue. What is significant is that he felt obliged to argue carefully, using a battery of Biblical allusions, that the Ten Commandments were laid upon the Jews and do not apply to Christians, who come later. So far from disregarding scripture, the passage is a spectacular example of respect accorded to textual authority.

Fish demonstrates, very interestingly, a shift in Milton from an early belief in the plain intelligibility and ‘self-sufficiency’ of scripture to a later belief that scripture requires careful interpretation. With a nod to Derrida, he calls the factor of interpretation a ‘supplement’ and then concludes, with characteristic exaggeration, that respect for scripture as an object of understanding has vanished – as if ‘interpretation’ were an intransitive activity, like ‘musing’, or ‘pretending’. In fact, Milton always presumed that reading the Bible was a cognitive act.

Areopagitica, that ringing call for freedom in printing and judging books, presents a challenge to Fish’s skill in dissolving this-worldly elements. First he points out triumphantly that this supposed liberal wants to suppress Roman Catholicism. As with the Ten Commandments, so here with the Papacy the proper complexities of the situation are elided. It is perfectly true that Milton wishes to repress Roman Catholics but what is his reason? It is that Roman Catholics are themselves illiberal. Again and again in Areopagitica it is the Roman Catholic Church with its Inquisition and system of censorship which is seen as the great threat to freedom. The situation is indeed mildly paradoxical but it doesn’t entitle us to conclude that Milton’s liberalism is unreal. The liberal’s first job is always to lock up the fascist. As before, Fish successfully identifies a shift, this time from books as good-in-themselves to books as the proper material of a discriminating judgment. As before, he exaggerates the significance of the sequence, suggesting that the book as object falls out of the picture.

Although Fish is aware of the richly coloured, irremediably this-worldly matter which fills Milton’s poetry, his prior relegation of this matter to the category of the unreal makes him an oddly boring, monochrome reader. In the poetry written before Paradise Lost the ordinary reader, uninstructed by Fish, finds a tension between Renaissance syncretism – the notion that ancient mythology and thought can be a sort of lisping Christianity, indistinctly pre-echoing the great truths – and what we must call for want of a better word, Protestant ‘exclusionism’, or the idea that all such pagan stuff is wicked or false. In Lycidas the golden shepherd of Graeco-Roman pastoral is played against the stern, responsible shepherd of the Gospels; each has his proper music, producing together a polyphonic effect. When we are in the Christian register we are told that Lycidas has ‘mounted high’, that he has gone to Heaven. At the end of the poem, however, he becomes a ‘genius of the shore’. This sounds like a pagan local deity, immanent not transcendent, almost a nature spirit, save for the fact that the word ‘shore’ – between land and sea – sustains a feeling of liminality. In place of a circumscribing Christianity, we have here a poem which closes in the pagan mode. Fish, blinded by theory, has lost his ability to respond to the pagan music of the poem. For him the line about the dead man as genius of the shore merely marks, once again, a movement into suprarational mystery.

He reads Comus as if it were unequivocally ‘exclusionist’: the Lady is good, Comus bad. His ear fails to pick up, for example, the fact that, while the Lady is horrified at the thought of running into woodland Pan-worshippers, the dance just before the end is such ‘As Mercury did first devise/ With the mincing Dryades’ – the old gods, excluded by the virtuous Lady, are happily admitted by the poem. The spirit of Comus (whose name means ‘revel’ or ‘masque’) is not fully exorcised, still less excluded in advance.

Fish is sometimes willing to argue against himself. At one point, when he is considering the centrifugal forces of rebellion and the like, he lightly observes that Milton himself may be among these. The concession is far greater than he realises. It validates a counter-picture in which Milton admits real tension and ambiguity, as against the pre-ordained closure elsewhere asserted by Fish. Sometimes Fish’s afterthoughts produce mere contradiction. In one place he writes that knowledge and truth are not, for Milton, linked to objects but are ‘inward dispositions, conditions of a heart always yearning’, in another that Milton was ‘a hard-core objectivist’. Having argued heavily for Milton’s preference for stillness over journeying, action and so on, very near the end of the book he suddenly allows, in a lucid interval, the poet’s fierce interest in perpetual progression. A page or two later, however, he is once more reasserting Milton’s monism. I have no wish to deny that Milton was a monist in theology. It leads him in Christian Doctrine to reject the orthodox Trinity and to assert that the Father alone is God. But this monism is thwarted and contested not by unrealities but by realities.

It may be that there is a short answer to all of this: namely, that if we once make the move from a Godless to a God-filled perspective, all the knowledge of particular things, all the loves of people, places, books, poems flow back with redoubled strength. A flourishing objectivism, within the faith, is after all authorised. Fish intermittently acknowledges this as a possibility, but the main weight of his writing is remorselessly negative. Milton’s cancellation of the things of the world is indefatigably minuted; of rehabilitation we hear almost nothing. The apparent contradiction between the anti-objectivist Milton and the objectivist can be resolved if we say that God, at least, is objective for Milton. But God, though a given in aprioristic theology, is precisely not given in experience, except to mystics and inspired persons. Thus Fish writes that Milton stakes all on ‘an inner resolution supported by nothing but itself’ – not, notice, ‘supported by nothing less than God himself’.

The impulse towards an ultimate nothingness is strong in Fish. He begins his book with Freud’s bizarre contention that, because every organism wishes to undo its own separateness, to cease to be, ‘the aim of all life is death.’ This, Fish says, is ‘a perfect description of Milton’s thought and work’. It is a recurrent tic of his style suddenly to cancel, with a dash or a parenthesis, a half-positive proposition, replacing it with a more radical negation. Describing the angels who ‘sit in order serviceable’ he explains that they are exalted above those who would initiate their own enterprises; the angels present ‘a more static action (if “action” is the word)’. The sentence enacts a final dissolution. Elsewhere we are given long litanies of negation: ‘the condition of not being framed, not being set off, of not being mortal … not being visible’; ‘true fame is not a report, or a citation, or a parade of triumph.’ He provides an enormous list of things which liberals believe but which Milton did not believe. Writing about the Apology against a Pamphlet … against Smectymnuus he first alleges (baselessly) that Milton disjoins eloquence from any connection with speech – suggesting that it is instead linked to action – then explains that action is invisible and mysterious, prior to the slightest movement or gesture. Here, as we watch, Fish’s sentence trips itself up in the final self-cancelling phrase, ‘verbal or a-verbal’. In a nihilist frenzy he affirms that Areopagitica is ‘a casualty of the lesson it teaches’: the lesson that truth is ‘not the property of any external form, even of the form which proclaims this very truth’. The last words here have to be nonsense.

Fish is building on something real: that Calvinist strand in Protestantism which sees all human creativity and thought as depraved. As George Herbert wrote, ‘We say amiss/This or that is:/Thy word is all, if we could scan.’ This indeed results in ‘self-consuming artefacts’, poems which must end in pious self-cancellation, or literary valedictions such as Herbert’s ‘Jordan’ or Marvell’s ‘The Coronet’, which bid farewell to poetry. The force of this originally Calvinist imperative is certainly discernible in Milton. The oddly unreal war in Heaven in Paradise Lost, Book V, where gaseous, unwoundable angels morph as if they were computer graphics and absurdly array themselves in armour and chariots – the whole thing trembling on the edge of mock-heroic though never explicitly humorous – accords admirably with Fish’s thesis. So does Samson Agonistes, where the real fight is off-stage, between God and Dagon. But any good literary critic should notice that these are distinctive, that most of Milton is not like this at all. Michael Watkins in an unpublished thesis observes that Fish makes Milton sound exactly like George Herbert, and of course he is nothing like George Herbert. Herbert’s central theology is thoroughly Calvinist; he accepts the depravity of man. Milton famously opposed Calvinism and adopted the Arminian belief in free will, which makes man once more a moral agent. It is as if Fish’s majestic setting aside of all argument has made him unintelligent about the theological complexity and excitement of Milton’s work.

The cardinal element in Paradise Lost, announced at the beginning, is theodicy – that is, justification of God. Because this is not open to question for Fish, he does not think about it. Milton meanwhile wrestles endlessly. How can one reconcile the existence of any evil at all with a God who is both all-powerful and all-good? Perhaps by saying that such a God might wish for created beings who were not puppets, a replication of his own will, but free – and that this freedom would make it possible for them to sin. But in fact they would not sin: they would spontaneously tell Satan to take himself off, unless they were already defective in some way. Milton is haunted by the problem of a myth which, when it seeks to recount the origin of evil, must always presuppose an earlier evil. Fish shows no sign of understanding this. Analysing Eve’s fall he stresses its wickedness without asking how she, ‘yet sinless’, could act wickedly. He treats Samson’s yielding to Dalila as if it were exactly parallel to Adam’s yielding to Eve, without pausing to consider that Samson is a fallen human being, while Adam was not.

There are hints in Paradise Lost that, when he saw that a bare appeal to freedom could not account for the Fall, Milton turned to the idea that God’s goodness could still be saved by showing that really the Fall was not bad news but good. In Book XII the angel tells the fallen Adam that he will find ‘a paradise within thee, happier far’, in which he can discover the virtue of patience, which is not available in the static, centrally-heated Paradise which preceded the arrival of Satan, where there was nothing to be suffered, or withstood (and, similarly, no scope for courage or pity). These are the anti-Fishian dynamic virtues which Milton celebrated in Areopagitica (‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue’). The last lines of the poem, describing the departure from Paradise, exhibit once more a polyphony to which Fish is deaf. Nothing could be sadder, more lost, than ‘with wandering steps and slow’, nothing more stirring than ‘The world was all before them, where to choose …’ When Fish announces at the beginning of his book that for Milton everything is over before it begins, so that any adventurous setting out on a journey will prove futile, he cuts off the movement into live morality at the end of the epic. He has glimpses of it, however. Writing about Areopagitica he suddenly says: ‘Virtue depends on the availability of materials against which it can be exercised.’ What he does not see is the bearing this has on an unfallen state in which no such materials were provided.

The inner tendency of this drive to monism, to merge the separate elements of the world in the originating unity of God, is an undoing of creation. In which case it is evident that God and Fish (for all his paroxysms of historical piety) do not agree. The Creator must will the existence of something other than himself, or he would not have created. It is as if perfection, infinity and self-sufficiency can have no motive for creation other than a wholly mysterious love for the weak, the imperfect, the fleshly. Leibniz, whose theology is, like Fish’s, heavily aprioristic, is hit by the difficulty of explaining why God should create at all, and says, helplessly: ‘La Sagesse doit varier.’ Interestingly, Fish is bothered by the fact that the prayers of Adam and Eve are described as ‘various’. Behind this unease there is clearly a larger worry about the variety, the plurality of creation itself, as against the oneness of God. Fish says that ‘in a God-centred universe difference and variety are accidental and temporary conditions.’ Derrida said that meaning was endlessly deferred, no longer stabilised and guaranteed by a Logos at the heart of things. Fish’s Milton is a Derridean for whom the Logos still exists but even so human meanings remain as deliquescent as ever. God, as Fish presents him, is far too perfect to help out here. But Christianity is, precisely, the religion of the Incarnation, of the loving Creator who humiliated himself on the cross. Augustine said that he had read much about the Logos in the Platonists, but that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us he never found in the writings of the Greeks.

Fish can be a brilliant, stylish critic. In this book he writes admirably on, for example, the blending of Echo and Narcissus in Comus. Also I must grant that Milton himself is oddly unresponsive to the mystery of Incarnation (of which I have made so much) when he deals with the crucifixion in Paradise Lost.

Fish undertakes the dissolution into evasive mystery of the most courageously argumentative of all the English poets. His book has a sombre, Manichaean-Deconstructionist grandeur. A vertebral thesis runs from beginning to end. The trouble is, it is based on a misreading of Milton.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences